I was recently asked by Elias Haase at B9Lab in London to write the equivalent of a “hippocratic oath” for blockchain developers, which would form part of their developers training program. A hippocratic oath might not be the most suitable format for developers in a field that is working intensively on decentralised cryptographic and game theory security models. In other words, appealing to a moral and ethical position might seem pretty feeble and pointless in the face of serious infrastructural security questions.
But this is not a hippocratic oath. It is a set of questions to understand better the relationship between code and the unknown in a messy world of only partially conceivable and unquantifiable relations – all those things that cannot just be turned into a self-executing law. It is some considerations for a dissensus protocol as an important complement to the consensus protocol. Here is my introduction to the Satoshi Oath (originally published on the B9Lab blog):
In a time that is rife with corruption scandals and disillusionment in existing financial and political institutions the blockchain has a set of properties that has made it so attractive for so many people across industries as well as across the political spectrum: decentralisation, immutability and neutrality. But in the messy real world that we inhabit, these properties are only a set of ideal values that people might strive towards or use to their advantage rather than features that are always and fully guaranteed by the architecture.
This much can be learned from the past few years of governance crises across the major blockchain projects (see for example the DAO / Ethereum hack and Bitcoin block size conflict). Somewhere along the line, someone is making decisions and writing code, somewhere there is someone with a different idea or version of decentralisation or neutrality, and not everybody has the same types of capacities to engage with and act in the system. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Disagreement and differences should not be repressed. But what this does mean is that the problem of governance, of power and authority is not simply resolved through technical architecture, it has just radically changed shape and character to include algorithmic processes and cryptographic proof.
The Satoshi Oath for developers is designed to draw out the edges and limitations of the technical architecture in guaranteeing these values and to help each person clarify what exactly they mean for each given project they might work on. It is a tool to think through how a project might relate to the people and environments that it affects and to think beyond code.
To do this, it takes each of these three central properties of the blockchain and adds two helpful concepts to start questioning how values like immutability, neutrality and decentralisation relate to the social contexts where they are being applied: Power, Change, Delegation, Disclosure, Dissensus and Exodus.
– Immutability is a central attribute of the blockchain to ensure trust in the system and integrity of the data. But not every situation can be anticipated: the world changes, systems need to adapt and data might be incorrect and even hurt someone (take the example of medical records, credit ratings or identity systems). There might be situations where the rule of immutability needs to be flexible, where the protocol or the data in fact does need to be changed. Ask yourself, who (or what) has the power to change the protocol in such a situation? What are the processes for this? What is the full range of people and environments that might be affected by this change? How will a non-technical user be made aware of changes that might affect them? In what ways can they influence this?
– Neutrality is an ideal that should be strived for but is never fully realised because all systems operate on a set of assumptions about how the world works, what people want and how they behave. A design is usually open for negotiation in the early days, before one version wins out over another and becomes normalised and possibly made into a standard. When these assumptions are encoded into a system they become automatically reinforced, invisible and harder to change. Ask yourself, what are the assumptions and behaviours that are delegated to the infrastructure to automatically reinforce? What needs to be disclosed in order for people to be able to understand, influence and possibly even change the assumptions of the system down the line? What languages (code or human-based) are needed for such explanations to make it understandable to those affected?
– Decentralisation could be said to be the most fundamental principle of blockchain technology. But in practice, one version of decentralisation might clash with another, and if it becomes compulsory to take part in a decentralised system, the system itself becomes an oppressive authority in its own right. — The only difference being that it is less obvious than centralised authorities of the past because power is executed across multiple actors in the network. Ask yourself, how does the system deal with dissensus? — Is it possible to disagree with the development of/changes to a system? How can it be expressed, by whom and with what consequences? Is exodus possible? — To leave the system entirely? And what are the different consequences for different types of users and contributors for disagreeing or leaving?
The Satoshi Oath for developers is a tool to make visible the informal social processes that are part of the infrastructure, to consider who or what benefits or who or what is left behind by different design decisions. A decentralised computer network does not guarantee decentralised power, transparency does not guarantee legibility and finally, code and cryptography does not guarantee neutrality.
You can read and sign the Oath on the Ethereum Blockchain. The text is hosted on IPFS.
The dawn and delusions of the ‘Nerd Reich’
This text was first published in Open Democracy 30th of April, 2016
At this moment there is a technology under development that many forecast will have an equally fundamental impact on how we do things as the Internet itself.
But instead of facilitating the circulation of information, this technology changes the very way that information is agreed on and verified as true and how such a ‘truth’ might be enforced. The two areas that this technology is poised to have the largest transformative effects on are finance and government – the very way that money and democracy operate. The technology is called the blockchain.
After a short introduction to the blockchain for the new reader, the purpose of this piece is threefold: first, to emphasise that there is no inevitable way in which technology develops, but that it is shaped by conscious or unconscious decisions made between differing possibilities; secondly that such decision-making is an important moment in determining our social and political future; and finally, to introduce some tools for making sense of, understanding and acting within this whirling new field.
A (very brief) explanation of the blockchain
The blockchain rose to fame initially as part of the Bitcoin cryptocurrency and is the computational process that allows for a network of computers to come to an agreement about the state of transactions, without needing a central authority like a bank to guarantee security or prevent double-spending.
The blockchain is a linear chain of blocks of data – for example, information about transactions that have occurred – which is validated through a computational competition (in the case of Bitcoin this is called mining). Participation in the network is governed by a set of protocols implementing economic incentives to reward those acting in favour of the network and punish those trying to impede its function.
The blockchain has in the past couple of years seen new developments beyond digital currencies and is being applied to many other areas: from the Internet of Things (cf. Slockit) to domain name registries (cf. Namecoin), including systems for governance (cf. Backfeed). These efforts often have a stated intention of decentralising or disintermediating existing processes, by replacing institutional or industrial authority with networked computing, thereby translating existing legal, financial and political processes into technical code such as self-executing smart contracts.
Grounded in cryptography, the network is very unlikely to be controlled by any single entity or central authority, which enables a practically immutable and censorship-resistant public ledger and computing platform. While such new elements — machines, algorithms, fibre-optics, developers, engineers, investors with new forms of agency and control — are being introduced into or even replacing institutional processes, little is understood about where and how control and power shifts in the process.
For many, the attraction of the blockchain is thus the promise of disintermediation: getting rid of middlemen who act as authoritative gatekeepers or increase cost without adding value. It is an attractive prospect, especially in our current context of endemic corruption amongst the political and financial elites and a generalised feeling of powerlessness and anger.
The blockchain represents a promise for you to be able to determine your own governance system, your own legal structure and create your own money, and to do so in a manner that is interoperable with others who are doing the same thing across the world. Does this not sound like freedom? Does this not mean autonomy and independence? Surely that can only be a good thing?
Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily so. If you download and start using, say, a Bitcoin wallet, it is likely that it will display the current value of Bitcoins in dollars. This is a first, and very simple example of the interdependencies of systems, demonstrating that the dollar, and currency exchange markets more generally, have a very real impact on the perceived value of your Bitcoin and thus what you can or cannot do with it. Even cryptocurrencies exist within geo-political contexts and do not necessarily guarantee liberation from these, so long as their value are dependent on and related to the same exchange markets.
Let’s take another slightly more complex example that most people familiar with the blockchain and Bitcoin will have come across: the ongoing dispute about block-sizes in the Bitcoin blockchain.
For the unfamiliar reader, here is a brief summary:
In the core code of Bitcoin there is a limitation on the data-size of each block of transactions in the blockchain. In 2015, a worry started to spread that this limitation was slowing down or even inhibiting the validation of transactions, in other words that the blocks were “filling up”. A suggestion was made to increase the block size, which was in turn refused by a significant part of the network and resulted in the exiting of one of the core developers . The dispute could be represented as two very different notions of decentralisation: on the one hand, increasing the blocksize might allow for more rapid validation of transactions and therefore a spread in the usability of the currency. Yet on the other hand, it would radically increase the computational power needed to validate transactions, meaning the bar for participation within the network that validates transactions and runs full nodes would become prohibitively high, centralising the computing – and thus political power – in the network.
This dispute represents two very different visions for how and for whom Bitcoin should develop – as a digital money service provider competing with Visa, Mastercard and Paypal, or as an entirely new and emergent way of understanding and governing value, with priority given to widespread participation in the governance and evolution of the network. Does the limit of block sizes constitute a problem or does it safeguard against infrastructural centralisation?
The dispute remains unresolved and has resulted in a hardfork in the Bitcoin network, with nodes running different versions of the core code. Thus a technical decision about modifying one aspect of the core code has in one sweep demonstrated that politics (the political understood as the negotiation over mutually incompatible interests) is not eradicated by replacing institutions with a technical system. It has merely shifted the decision-making process from a parliament or central bank to git and the bedrooms, incubators or offices of developers.
In other words, rather than disintermediation, it might be more accurate to say that there is a radical process of reintermediation, the introduction of, literally, new media in which for example voting is replaced by nodes forking bits of code and the legal system replaced by self-executing smart contracts.
Admittedly, reintermediation is a clunky concept and does not allow us to understand what exactly changes when, for example, a bureaucratic, legal or political process is replaced by code and algorithms. So let’s explore some concepts that might be more helpful…
Despite their ubiquitous presence in our everyday lives, technology development and devices are still understood as things that operate under objective laws of physics and engineering, rather than being manifestations of interests, drives and desires of humans. Delegation can be a helpful concept in helping us think about how technology relates to politics and power dynamics as a whole.
The concept of ‘delegation’ is introduced in Bruno Latour’s 1992 text on “mundane artifacts” where he discusses the automatic door closer in an office. In this simple example, a decision is made in an office that it is good and desirable for the door to remain closed. This position, which might or might not be disputed by others in the office, is encoded in and delegated to the door closer, which henceforth proactively enforces this decision. Repeated negotiations, reminders or arguments amongst office workers are thus eliminated by this simple device, shifting the question of whether the door should be open or closed out of the realm of contestation.
While the decision of a door needing to remain closed might seem an insignificant and mundane example, it serves as a way of understanding what happens when more complex questions are encoded in technology.
The political, understood as continuous negotiation between potentially incompatible positions, is resolved once and then encoded in and delegated to the technology, after which a given process is rendered apolitical. Contestation in the process of innovation is therefore not simply the imposition of limits, but is an important aspect of the shaping of a given technology, which might be enacting a function for the benefit of one social group or another.
The concept of delegation allows us to ask the right questions when developing new forms of blockchain-based decentralised (self)governance on a potentially global scale. What processes, actions and decisions should be delegated to and encoded in blockchain technology? Which functions should instead be delegated to institutional processes or social situations that keep the possibility for contestation open?
“Transmutation” and the collapse of time, space and ambiguity into binary execution
The concept of delegation might be helpful for understanding how political and ethical positions are encoded in and enforced by technological devices, but it does not describe the qualitative shift that also happens when such new technology, mediums and mediators are introduced.
Literary theorist Kathrine Hayles writes about the shifts and intermediations that take place in the relationship between code, writing and speech, elaborating on a central point made by Alexander Galloway, that code can be understood as the first language which is executive. In other words, code enacts and executes continuously and proactively rather than retroactively. For Lessig this meant that code is law.
However, technical and legal regulation operate very differently so we cannot simply say law has been rewritten as code. Code also entails enforcement, the police, or even more accurately, code might be understood as architecture: a space where your options are prebuilt and continuously, yet subtly, entice or inhibit specific actions and movements. While law is enforced after the fact and has spatial, temporal and interpretive grey scales in its implementation and enforcement, technical code on the other hand allows and disallows continuously and in a binary fashion, representing an immense transmutation.
The new fields of innovation that the blockchain has inspired such as FinTech and RegTech (GovTech or DemTech will probably be next to appear) are not simply the solving of technical problems, complying with metrics of efficiency only, but also entail fundamental changes to the implementation, enforcement and execution of law and governance as a whole.
And to add another facet to this transformation, we might want to consider the spatial and temporal transmutations that such shifts also entail, in which a process that normally took place between, say, parliament where regulation is shaped, the streets where a crime might take place, the police cell, the court room etc. each stage including multiple forms of negotiation of power, relationships, norms and plenty of other variables, are all collapsed into a binary moment.
Thinking about how such changes alter the role of time and space in these processes helps to illustrate the profound shift that is under way. Attention to this shift begs a further question: what types of decisions and regulations are suitable to be encoded in a binary manner and proactively enforced? Especially given that the particular architecture in question is bulwarked with cryptography and therefore extremely hard, nearly impossible to retrospectively alter.
“Complexity” and the dawn of the Nerd Reich
Let’s now go back to the door closer: in terms of power dynamics, there is an important difference between the door closer and the blockchain – the level of complexity. The office worker can always block the door with a heavy object to keep it open, or even pick apart the not very sophisticated device with a simple screwdriver.
The blockchain on the other hand is designed to be irreversible, using cryptography to be tamper-proof and is extremely complex, making it very difficult for the vast majority of people to understand what is at stake in its design and implementation stages, let alone to intervene or modify the system once it is in place. The extreme level of complexity of the blockchain, not to mention the many layers of infrastructure, power and supply chains on which it is dependent, contributes to creating new forms of elites, evangelising while also constituting the very small group of people who fully understand and can modify the system.
In other words, the supposed “trustless” systems of blockchain innovations might be better understood as a shift of trust from one realm and set of processes to another, requiring an immense trust in cryptography, hardware, the ongoing availability of electricity and raw materials and, or course, in the decisions made by the evangelists of the nerd Reich themselves. While Bitcoin existed as a project amongst a community of people who participated and tinkered with the system themselves, trustless and disintermediation might have had some validity, but as a technology for widespread implementation in finance and government, questions of complexity, control, oversight and participation become urgent.
The Nerd Reich delusion
It is tempting, after all of the above, to assume that the Nerds are in the process of ascending to spiralling heights of power, that they’re becoming responsible for our collective political and economic futures. And while indeed, developers and engineers should be (and indeed many are) attentive to the social and political assumptions they are building into these systems, their development does not exist and thrive in a vacuum, but is supported and encouraged through funding, marketing and regulation.
This is why some projects that seek to go against the grain and propose alternatives come across as overtly political, while others are understood as neutral: because the latter bear within them implicit assumptions, assumptions about human behaviour or values that are widespread and continuously re-enforced, such as market-based incentives to encourage or punish behaviour in the system. On the other hand, one of the most interesting aspects of blockchain development is exactly that other values can be encoded into these systems.
Blockchain technology is not being developed in a vacuum or on a tabula rasa in which a Nerd Reich can finally create sci-fi utopias for us all – unfortunately (or fortunately) existing contexts, power dynamics and inequalities affect what is made possible or not, and in whose interest.
The text is #1 in a series called BlockBusters, edited in collaboration with Elias Haase of B9Lab, introducing helpful concepts for navigating the politics of the emerging blockchain landscape. Catch Jaya and Elias at Re:Publica in Berlin this week, at the session The blockchain: a crash course and challenging consensus.
Thanks to Vinay Gupta for the term “Nerd Reich”.
Some further reading:
Chantal Mouffe 2005. On the Political. Routledge
N. Kathrine Hayles 2005. My Mother Was A Computer. University of Chicago Press
Alexander Galloway 2004. Protocol, how control exists after decentralisation. MIT Press
Bruno Latour 1992. Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts. Chapter 10 in Bijker, W. and Law, J. Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change.
Aaron Van Wirdum 2016. On Consensus, or why bitcoins blocksize presents a political trade-off.
 See the response to the contentious developer from other parts of the community here: https://medium.com/@BitFuryGroup/keep-calm-and-bitcoin-on-4f29d581276
 A hardfork refers to when a change is implemented in the code that diverges from and is incompatible with the previous version, entailing a fork and thus two (or more) different versions in operation.
 Version control system widely used in software development
“…public regulatory influence could be exerted through a combination of legal and technical code, rather than exclusively through legal code as at present.”
pp10-11 Walport, et. al. 2016
“There are no bylaws or other legal documents stating these rules, and no humans to enforce them — distributed ledger systems are solely governed by their own technical code.”
Delegation is a helpful concept to begin thinking about the political implications of technology. Despite its pervasiveness in our everyday lives infrastructure, devices and apps are still understood as existing in an objective scientific realm rather than a social and political one, governed by laws of physics and engineering rather than the unpredictable drives and desires of humans. I came across the concept of delegation in such a capacity first through Bruno Latour’s 1992 text on “mundane artifacts” where he discusses the automatic door closer in an office. This simple example demonstrates how what could be understood as an ethical position – that the door should remain closed to save heating and energy and keep out draft – is delegated to the technology, encoded and designed into the automatic door stopper, which then ensures the continued enforcement of this decision without the need for continued negotiation or arguments amongst the office workers.
While the decision of a door needing to remain closed might indeed be a mundane example, it opens up for an understanding of the significant temporal and spatial shift that takes place when more complex or contentious questions are encoded into a given piece of technology. Instead of remaining open and continuous, the political, understood as contestation and negotiation between potentially incompatible positions, is resolved once and then relocated, designed and encoded into the technology, now rendered apolitical. Opening up this moment of delegation and relocation to a device, technology theorist Andrew Feenberg unravels the histories of several everyday technologies like the steam engine and bicycle in order to demonstrate the extent to which the social and political contestation that forms part of the design and installation of for example a door stopper also shapes the very nature and function of a given innovation. Discussing these histories, it becomes clear that contestation in the process of innovation is not simply the imposition of limits, but is an important aspect of the shaping of the given technology, which henceforth would be enacting a function for the benefit of one social group or another. The concept of delegation puts some questions on the table to bear in mind when developing and dreaming up new forms of blockchain based decentralised (self)governance at a potentially global scale: what processes, actions and decisions should be delegated to and encoded in (blockchain) technology? which should instead be delegated to a social machine? and which should remain in a sphere of repeated open negotiation and dispute?
The two quotes opening this brief text above are from the recently published UK Government Office for Science’s recent report about the possible future impact of the Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technologies – in particular for the the functioning of government and governance. In the introduction, the report discusses the difference in nature between legal code and technical code while emphasising that both should be considered and used as techniques for governance, and that the UK government should hence be at the forefront of Blockchain and DLT development as an “expert customer” driving the innovation. The burgeoning field of FinTech innovation that has followed in the wake of Bitcoin is thus now joined by a new field of “RegTech”. Thinking through these new fields of technology innovation in finance, regulation and government as a form of delegation of institutional functions to technology helps to highlight that this also entails a relocation of the political, the spatial and temporal possibility of contestation, from an institutional setting with its associated forms of (however flawed) processes and procedures for accountability, to a design and development process which is mostly judged by metrics of efficiency in solving a problem which is taken for granted rather than problematised.
The concept of delegation has some important limitations however, one of which is the lack of attention to the significance of the medium. Technical code and legal code have very important qualitative differences, also highlighted in the UK Gov. blockchain report. Literary theorist Kathrine Hayles discusses at length the shifts and intermediations that take place in the relationship between code, writing and speech, elaborating on a central point made by Alexander Galloway, that code can be understood as the first language which is executive. In other words, code enacts and executes continuously. While law is enforced after the fact and has spatial, temporal and interpretive grayscales in its implementation and enforcement, technical code on the other hand allows and disallows continuously and in a binary fashion. This vast difference between mediums can hardly be captured by the notion of delegation, which instead insinuates having a given action done by a device that is faster and more efficient, ignoring the ensuing dramatic transformation this entails in terms of enforcement and execution. FinTech and RegTech (surely GovTech will come next) are not simply the solving of technical problems following metrics of efficiency only, but also entail fundamental changes to the implementation and execution of law and governance. In other words, significant political and philosophical questions are at stake and assumed in the process of coding new blockchain systems.
Finally, there are important differences between the blockchain and the door stopper when it comes to the question of delegation: The office worker can always block the door with a heavy object to keep it open, or even pick apart the not very complex system of the automatic door stopper with a simple screwdriver. The blockchain on the other hand is designed to be irreversible, using cryptography to be tamper-proof and is extremely complex, making it very difficult for the vast majority of people to understand what is at stake in design and implementation stages, and to intervene or modify the system once in place.
Andrew Feenberg. 1999. Questioning Technology. Routledge
N. Kathrine Hayles. 2005. My Mother Was a Computer. University of Chicago Press
Bruno Latour. 1992. Where Are The Missing Masses? The Sociology of a Few Mundane Artifacts. In Bijker, W. Law, J. Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change. MIT Press
Mark Walport (ed.). Distributed Ledger Technology: Beyond the Blockchain. UK Government Office for Science
Recommendations for other texts and perspectives related to these topics are, as always, welcome.
Painting by Hilma av Klint
The blockchain was first introduced through the cryptocurrency Bitcoin and is a commonly held and continuously updated record of all bitcoin transactions that uses cryptographic hashing to register, validate and store transactions in a distributed manner. It consists of a “chain” of blocks of transaction data that have been verified and agreed on through a consensus algorithm in the network. The fact that the record of transactions is held, verified and added to through a decentralised computer network rather than by an authority like a bank (and that this process also determines the rate of money-supply in the system) is part of what makes it so radically new and different to existing systems and has spurred a wave of development of other blockchain projects beyond money and payment systems.
The Distributing Chains research project is driven by the question of what matters politically in blockchain technology? By “matters” what is meant is literally mattering as in making a material difference. By “politically” what is meant is the mediation and resolution of incompatible positions and the process through which the possible and impossible are distributed across spaces and domains. Different forms of political mattering are traced across three aspects of blockchain, from protocol, in which political economies are encoded and continuously operate, an immanent power that makes some actions desirable over others; to governance and processes of maintenance, correction, forking and development, an explicit politics of negotiation and resolution of dissensus; and finally interfaces with other systems and agencies, to account for the contingencies and contexts of what is otherwise too often understood as hermetic systems, in order to open up space for evaluation of the claims and social and political effects of blockchain. The research is grounded in three case studies: Bitcoin, Ethereum and Faircoin, comparing consensus protocols and the different forms of agency that are assumed and distributed in each.
Distributing Chains is a PhD project by Jaya Klara Brekke (general projects website: http://www.jayapapaya.net/) based in the Geography department of Durham University UK.